Breast cancer lesson 173: Good things come to those who wait

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While a trip back to oncology in the first week of January was never going to make the 2015 highlights list, I am delighted to report that, as appointments go, it was actually rather nice.

For starters, when a doctor says the words: ‘well done’, ‘congratulations’ and ‘now go away and forget about us’ in the space of a four-minute conversation (that was actually stretched out because I had waited 1.5 hours to be seen), you know things are going to be just fine.

It was a strange experience walking back down the street to the hospital, passing the chairs where I waited anxiously on more than one occasion and sitting in the waiting room smiling conspiratorially at bald patients. I have to say, if you’ve got short hair (or in fact any hair), an oncology department is the place to go to feel hairy!

With such a glowing report, you’d think there wouldn’t be a test attached but, this being a research hospital, you can’t move across the waiting room without someone waving a consent form and asking you to sign away relevant bits of your body.

This time, I was asked whether I would participant in a genetics research project for 300 women with lobular cancer. Apparently, given lobular cancer (click here for more information) is less common than ductal, they are exploring whether or not there is a genetic reason why people are diagnosed. Sadly, my individual results will not be shared with me (and I didn’t qualify for genetics testing because the cancer in my family is, thankfully, too far away for concern), but I hope that the research study, when it’s completed, will help many more people in the future. Things are easier to fix (or prevent) when we understand them.

Of course, for me to be a useful participant, I needed to provide one thing = blood. A year ago (blood donor that I was), I would have thought nothing of this and dutifully presented my arm. Trouble is, with good blood-giving arm permanently banned due to it being a lymphoedema risk, giving blood is no longer the breeze it once was. I signed the consent form willingly, but then I added: ‘Trouble is, you may not be able to get any blood to test.’

Undeterred, the nurse approached my arm and proceeded to prod, press, warm, wiggle, rub and tap it. Anyone familiar with my fertility preservation blogging days will know that no amount of coaxing brings these veins to the surface (eight failed attempts is my record). After a few attempts (given it is elective rather than compulsory she refused to continue) she sent me packing with the promise of a rematch – and hand-pumping exercises to do while watching the TV to strengthen my veins so that I play ball in future. I am not sure any amount of pumping will make my arm needle-friendly (especially as it wasn’t ruined by chemo, but always a bit rubbish, but I would very much like to contribute to the research, so I better give it a go.

I can’t quite say I’m discharged (that revolving oncology door will always be open to me), but with no follow-up form and the suggestion that I go and erase the word oncology from my mind, I’m as good as free (to see the breast surgeon annually – so not quite as free as I’d like).

Next up, the end of treatment clinic, a mammogram and a new nipple. Then I might just take a holiday!

Happy new year one and all. May it not involve too many more waiting rooms!

Next up, the end of treatment clinic, a mammogram and a new nipple. Then I might just take a holiday!

Happy new year one and all. May it not involve too many more waiting rooms!

Breast cancer lesson number nine: Some tears are worth crying

I’m one of life’s criers. I shed tears at a screening of Cool Runnings. I well up on hearing the heartfelt stories on Surprise Surprise and X Factor (yes, I do realise I have admitted this publically!). Even reading sentimental verses on birthday cards in shops is enough to set me off. In short, leaving the house without a packet of tissues is a daring act.

For a sensitive soul who wears her heart very much on her sleeve, I thought a cancer diagnosis would be my undoing (and shares in Kleenex, my pension pot). But, I must confess, beyond the odd epic wailing sessions (the boardroom at work being a particular highlight on day 4), I have shed very few tears about the unfair situation I now find myself in.  

In fact, most of my tears are due to the fact I have been truly touched and inspired by random acts of kindness, thoughtful gestures and supportive messages. These are tears worth crying in my book.

Read the news headlines, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is a pretty dark place, scarred by death, disaster and destruction. Scratch the surface, however, and you will discover that behind every sad story lies real beauty and tales of love that will move even the strongest person to tears. The truth is, the world is full of wonderful people – you just need to know where to look.

These wonderful people may not stop the presses, but there are so many reasons (too many for an entire blog, let alone one post) why they should. In my life right now, they are my front page and my headlines. They are the soundtrack to each day, filling up my heart and my Blackberry with the most humbling words and gestures.

Kindness takes many forms. It’s a cup of tea from a busy nurse. It’s a knowing smile from a stranger across a waiting room. It’s a thoughtful note left on my desk. It’s a touching email from someone I once helped. It’s reconnecting with an old friend. It’s a tip about wigs from a client. It’s a colleague who prints out a diagram demonstrating how a plane stays in the air (see lesson number four to see what I mean). It’s a plant with kind wishes from New Zealand. It’s a sleep CD. It’s a complete cancer care kit from teams at work – everything from an inflatable bath pillow to an overnight bag. It’s an offer of help. It’s a chemo care box from my kind soul, complete with words of encouragement. It’s cake and tea in plastic cups at Sketch (plus a pretty exciting excursion to the toilets). It’s a four and a half hour bus ride for a hospital appointment. It’s ice cream sundaes and smiles. It’s a coaster, roses, books and cookie cutters. It’s a ‘like’ and a ‘follow’ on social media. It’s an impromptu blood test (sorry Duncan). It’s a knitted teddy. It’s a knock on the door on a Saturday morning. It’s curry, cuticle cream and good chat. It’s research completed by a friend. It’s handmade bags for carrying my drains. It’s wine at lunch time. It’s chocolate and homemade treats to fatten me up. It’s a charity run – or two. It’s a never-ending list of kind acts that makes me feel happy to be alive – and ready to fight.

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Sorry cancer, in the face of such kindness and generosity, you don’t stand a chance. There are many memories from this phase that I hope will fade. There are others I will want to cling to forever – and take forward with me.

I am not sure I will ever be able to thank you all for the kindness you have shown me so far – and I haven’t even been anaesthetised yet! But, I am determined to focus on getting better, so I can spend the rest of my life trying.

So, this is my shout out to all the nice people in the world. If you’re reading this, that includes you. Thank you for being part of this chapter and for making me smile (when I am not crying about how amazing you are). You know who you are…

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Breast cancer lesson number seven: Cake is good for the soul and great for the boob!

Ok, so this isn’t an official medical recommendation. But, for someone who has a rather unhealthy obsession with hundreds and thousands and Green and Black’s vanilla white chocolate, it’s nice to know that the sweet stuff does have its uses!

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As you’ve probably guessed, I did pass the ‘fat’ test. But, in the words of my plastic surgeon, it is ‘tight’. That means, a week on Friday, I will be having a mastectomy (right boob off), axillary clearance (lymph nodes out) and immediate reconstruction (boob job) with, you guessed it, my tummy fat (a DIEP flap). I have always wanted to know what a flat stomach would look like. Now, for six weeks at least (post-op), I’ll know.

Today was an odd day to say the least. I did, however, learn two interesting things. Firstly, wear good knickers at all times because you never know when you are going to be asked to flash them. Secondly, don’t let anyone book your appointments the wrong way round – even if they say it won’t matter.

I started the day with the cancer surgeon, who revealed that the second biopsy confirmed the presence of even more cancer. At first he said: ‘I think it’s benign.’ Then he checked the notes and said: ‘ah, actually it’s more cancer.’ Interesting fact though, it doesn’t matter how many tumours you have in your boob, the treatment is based on attacking the largest one! So, no change then – just more cancer (nice).

The trouble is, because I hadn’t yet had the results of the ‘fat’ test, it was very hard to discuss the planned surgery. So, a completely hypothetical ‘what-happens-if-I-am-not-fat-enough-this-afternoon?’ discussion followed. One implant-measuring session and one consent form later and talk turned to surgery dates. ‘If we can’t use your fat, we can squeeze you in this week,’ the surgeon added. I am ashamed to admit, my immediate panic was more due to the fact I have conference calls, meetings, presentations and dinners planned for next week – not the fact I’d be starting to kick those cancer cells even earlier!

Thankfully, after spending lunch counting all the people that would be affected by this date change, I was relieved to discover that my commitment to cake eating had paid off. The most amusing part of all of this is that apparently tummy fat never forgets its origins. So, if I don’t cut back on the white chocolate and Cadbury’s Heroes after surgery, my right boob will make a rather ‘large’ statement. Almost worth trying just to see if it’s true.

Nothing if not obedient, I now have exactly 10 days to bake like Mary Berry before I am sentenced to six weeks of no exercise. I can’t even lift a supermarket shopping bag (he was quite specific, so that must mean other shopping is just fine). Every cloud… If only there was a way of bypassing the thighs and just channelling those calories into the abdomen.

One small aside before I finish. I have a first contender for Cancer Room 101 – people who moan in waiting rooms. There should be a big sign that says: ‘rejoice when there are long queues. It means the people caring for you are taking time to look after you and other people.’ Loud huffing and audible sighing is not cool. Next time, when you’re waiting and that clock is ticking, smile and say thank you for the dedication of the care team working tirelessly to fix you.

So let’s all raise a glass to flour, water, sugar and butter (preferably mixed and baked). It’s only taken a decade in the kitchen to realise just how important a mixing bowl and a wooden spoon are when your life is on the line!